Published on April 20, 2023
The house with a reputation. You know the kind: The listing zips around social media like a meme, and the open house is packed, but there it sits, until the right family—creative, intrepid, and a little desperate—walks through the door. By the time they toured it, designer Diana Mathews and her husband, chef Phillip Perrow, were already well aware of “The Secret Garden House.”
“The listing was so wild, the photos so crazy, that most people were probably terrified to go see it,” says Mathews. She and Perrow were nursing the wounds of yet another house lost to a bidding war and decided a “just-for-kicks” walk-through could be the perfect antidote for their disappointment. “We thought it would make for a good story. Little did we know it would become our story.
The 1930 brick house in Richmond, VA, featured a large brick wall around what was once presumably a lush, alluring garden. The yard had become a forest of weeds and unrelenting vines. “Vines had utterly eaten the wood picket fences that ran between the brick columns by the gate,” says Mathews. Massive stumps, weeds, and vines obscured brick pathways that wrapped around the home. “We wandered around the property, walked through the house, and fell completely dumbstruck in love with a money pit,” Mathews recalls. “We both knew this place would require so much love, but we saw past all the layers and totally envisioned our future here.”
Returning the house to its original state meant peeling back those unfortunate elements. Mathews and Perrow got the seller’s permission to invest sweat equity—removing layers of paint and repairing windowpanes—even before closing. “It was a lot of work for a leap of faith,” Mathews says. “We were stripping, stripping, stripping,” she says. “I quit counting the layers of wallpaper we removed from walls and ceilings or the sheets of linoleum we peeled off the floors. Phillip and I refinished all the floors and painted everything ourselves.”
Once they had a clean slate, the couple slowly began to embellish the bare bones of the traditional house with their eclectic sensibility. “If you asked me what my style was, I’d say ‘sentimental,'” says Mathews, who once owned a vintage resale shop and specialized in midcentury modern furniture. “We’ve collected midcentury pieces that we love, inherited antiques that have emotional value to us, and own art that spans various eras. Those were the treasures that drove this design.”
Marrying elements from different places and periods is what gives a home a certain unmatched style—something that’s become increasingly difficult to pull off in an “everything is shoppable” Instagram world, Mathews says. “I believe that if you know what you love, and you hold onto pieces that you love, they will always make you happy, and your home will be full of character. If you design based only on trends, you move on when the trends change because you have no emotional attachment to what you’re living with.”
Because of the home’s traditional layout, each room is independent rather than open—a separation of spaces that the couple enjoys. Though Mathews loves that each room tells its own story, she did want to create visual continuity. So she used color to transition from one space to the next, repeating shades of earthy greens for synthesis. “I love any and every shade of green,” she says. “Because I’ve always been drawn to that color tone, it’s possible for me to move things around, to shop from my own house because that color thread is like my second language. It’s everywhere here.”
In the stripped, repainted stairwell, Mathews’ gallery wall includes a few of her own paintings, some created by friends, and a special landscape series done by Perrow’s grandfather. As much as she’s drawn to old houses and their distinct personalities, Mathews didn’t want an ornate, traditional house that felt like a stuffy antiques store. “We are a young family who likes old things. But I’m here to tell you, your grandmother’s chair can get new, quirky upholstery and represent your taste while the form still reminds you of her,” she says.
The kitchen was the one room that warranted a complete remodel. Perrow, a chef, wanted the room to feel more welcoming than utilitarian, so he asked Mathews if she’d forgo upper cabinets. “I was reluctant, but now I’m so glad we did that,” she says. The couple incorporated antiques, hanging Perrow’s great-great-grandmother’s mirror on the wall and opting for an old workbench instead of a built-in island.
In the couple’s bedroom, a landscape painting by Perrow’s grandfather takes center stage above the bed. The room is filled with vintage furniture and sentimental pieces, creating a cozy retreat. The children’s rooms are equally charming, with whimsical touches and vintage toys.
The garden, once hidden beneath layers of overgrowth, has been transformed into a lush oasis. Mathews and Perrow spent countless hours clearing the space, revealing brick pathways, and planting a variety of flowers and plants. They salvaged bricks from the property to build raised beds for a vegetable garden. “The garden is a labor of love. It’s a place where we can connect with nature and spend time together as a family,” Mathews says.
She Kept Family Heirloom \u0026 Left Stunned by Price
The renovation of “The Secret Garden House” has been a true labor of love for Mathews and Perrow. They have poured their hearts into restoring the house and filling it with their cherished family heirlooms and vintage treasures. The result is a home that tells a story and reflects their unique style and personalities.
“I believe that a home should be a reflection of the people who live in it,” Mathews says. “It should be a place filled with things that make you happy and remind you of the people and moments that are important to you. That’s what we’ve tried to create here—a home that is truly ours.”
As Mathews and Perrow continue to make memories in their renovated home, they hope to inspire others to embrace their own unique style and create spaces that are meaningful to them. Their renovation journey serves as a reminder that with a little vision and a lot of love, any house can become a home filled with beauty and personal touches.